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I Watched the Nationals Cook Sophie Mirabella's Chance at Reclaiming Her Seat

Sophie Mirabella said the Victorian division of Indi missed out on millions when she lost office. Now even the Nationals are running against her, and those millions probably ain't coming back.

by Lee Zachariah
24 May 2016, 12:00am

For the first time in decades the Nationals are making a move on Indi, and candidate Marty Corby's team turned on the catering: humous, bikkies, plastic cups with Aussie flags. All photos by the author.

In 2013, independent candidate Cathy McGowan took everyone by surprise when she snatched the Victorian lower house seat of Indi from sitting Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella. In the first few hours, the polls were only reporting the standard Liberal vs Labor battle. But those paying attention to the polling stations noticed something interesting was happening. On the night the LNP won the country, they lost Indi, after 36 years under Liberal control.

Three years later, nobody is taking Indi for granted.

Cathy McGowan is recontesting, and the polls peg her as the favourite. Mirabella is the Liberal's candidate, fighting to win her seat back. But something else is happening. The National Party, which has not run a candidate in Indi in recent memory (although they did hold the seat for two decades), has also entered the fray. And this is a big deal.

Indi is mostly comprised of northern Victorian alpine country. The division includes most of the state's ski resorts, as well as the tourist areas of Rutherglen, Mansfield, and Beechworth. At 28,567 square kilometres the division is one of the largest in the state, and yet you wouldn't know it on a visit the candidate's offices. If you want to visit all three frontrunners, it will take you exactly two minutes. They all sit within 180 metres of one another, concentrating Indi's electoral battle to one comically small strip of Wangaratta.

I arrive on the day the National Party is launching its Indi campaign HQ. I'm a few minutes early, and decide there's enough time to check out the competition.

Mirabella's sad, closed office.

Sophie Mirabella's headquarters are closed today. With the Nationals holding a press event just around the corner, and after a week of unflattering news stories—including Mirabella alleging people in the Liberal party are leaking against her, and another claim that Wangaratta lost $10 million in funding because she wasn't reelected in 2013—it's not a bad day for her to be campaigning with fellow Liberal Kelly O'Dwyer over in Benalla.

Still, the darkened, closed office is not a great look. A local tells me that Mirabella doesn't have enough volunteers to keep it open when she's out.

Notice the orange wool. McGowan knows her bucolic, aging electorate.

Around the corner, sitting almost directly between the Liberal and National campaign HQs, is Cathy McGowan's own offices, resplendent in bright orange. I chat to a volunteer about the campaign, and we discuss the Nationals' launch across the road. I suggest that she walk over the road and heckle them a bit—a suggestion she doesn't seem to appreciate. I was just trying to create some news. Worth a try.

Indi is an interesting seat for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that it's a three-way race and, in a country mostly dominated by two-party politics, none of the three major contenders are from Labor. Labor has no campaign HQ on Wangaratta's main street, or anywhere else in Indi. It's not hard to see why.

Labor won 32 percent of the vote in 2007, then 27 percent in 2010, then 11 percent in 2013. There are no available numbers on how Labor is tracking this year. However, it's likely to be up from 2013 given Abbott-Turnbull-Mirabella's slipping popularity, and the fact Labor is no longer suffering from the specter of Rudd-Gillard-Rudd instability. But we'll take with a grain of salt Labor's leaked internal polling claiming that if independent Cathy McGowan dropped out, 77 percent of the electorate would vote for Labor. This claim had the ring of absurdity to it long before the Nationals entered the race.

Barnaby Joyce and his election Akubra.

Over the road at the new Nationals Indi HQ I watch Barnaby Joyce and candidate Marty Corboy talking to reporters. Joyce deflects the suggestion that they're "cooking Sophie" by breaking a long tradition to run a candidate in Indi. Joyce doesn't say it, but the fact the Nationals are beating the Liberals is probably the scenario they were hoping for. Mirabella is very unlikely to win her seat back, and so retaining it under a Coalition with the Nationals is the LNP's best case scenario.

A Nationals candidate is as likely to syphon votes away from Mirabella as McGowan, but preferences will play a big part. Given the cosy, almost-but-not-quite symbiotic relationship between the Liberals and the Nationals, it would be surprising if they didn't preference one another. Mirabella received 12,000 more votes than McGowan in 2013; however, the independent won by a very slim margin on preferences. It's still far too early to discount an upset.

Marty Corby assumes the casual stance of a man at ease.

Corboy stands next to Joyce and Fiona Nash, surrounded by yellow and green balloons brandishing his name. Joyce is boasting about the Nationals standing up for local residents when a high-pitched beeping alerts us to a man on a motorised scooter. The crowd shuffles awkwardly aside, and the guy trundles past complaining about the press blocking the footpath.

I had been hoping someone would quiz Corboy over an unfortunate quote from him that appeared in The Guardian: "Without sounding sexist," he said, "some people are rapt to have a man to vote for." It's the type of ill-judged statement that demands to be challenged, but when asked about it, Corboy suggests that a constituent said it to him during a door knock and he was simply repeating it. He says this awkward, stiff way that suggests he's hasn't had a lot of media training, which is strange for someone who has worked for years as a public relations officer.

But as worrying as the quote was, it might be unhelpful to spend to much time on it. One campaign volunteer tells me that one of their big concerns is the media painting the Indi race as a personality clash, rather than a healthy fight over local issues.

But personalities have played such a big part. One resident tell me about the frustrations many have felt with Mirabella on a personal level. One local business owner was furious at being ignored by Mirabella during her time in office. There were legitimate questions about local business opportunities, and Mirabella never responded. This is only one of many similar examples, and it's a problem Mirabella acknowledged, admitting she spent too much time within the Canberra bubble.

But the Canberra bubble is also a big concern. With the prospect of a hung parliament a very real possibility, and Labor making unconvincing noises about never again forming government with the Greens, an independent such as Cathy McGowan will be heavily courted by both sides to tip the balance. Based on her voting record, it's not clear which way she'd go. However, she must be thinking hard about how the memory of Tony Windsor's 2010 deal with Labor is affecting his bid to return to politics.

Both McGowan and Windsor have said that neither of them would form a minority government with the major parties, but to say anything else during the campaign would be a terrible idea for everyone. Faced with the choice of doing a deal with independents or taking the country back to the polls at great expense and inconvenience, expect this tune to change quickly. Independents like Cathy McGowan will find themselves very valuable.

Whether the voters of Indi take this possibility into consideration is another matter.

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